On a Truffle Hunt

How about this for a resume?

  • A misshapen, far-from-beautiful lump, the product of the freakish marriage between fungus and tree root;
  • Utterly aromatic – think musty, woodsy, earthy, sexy
  • Indescribably delicious;
  • Commands prices that make caviar seem as cheap as chips
  • Sets a chef’s hearts racing.

Now, picture this:

A slightly built Frenchman, with the leathered looks of an outdoor life, his wooly toque is in place, with mud caking his heavy boots. A sturdy satchel slung over his shoulder, he trundles through the woods of southern France with a little dachshund at his heels.

Câline looks like your run-of-the-forest dachshund.

Don’t be fooled. She has a special talent.

Jean Spati is a life-long truffle hunter or rabassier. Câline is his talented partner. Each year, on average, she digs up more than her weight in truffles, those warty-looking lumps that last year sold for $700 to $1400 a kilo, depending on their variety and quality.

Accompanying the master and pooch on their foray is one of the gastronomic outings included in the five-day cooking school at Hostellerie Crillon le Brave, an exquisite country inn located some 40 minutes northeast of Avignon.

It was a brisk, clear day when we set off for the woods in early February – the peak of the truffle season in this area.

Monsieur Spati and Câline were after Provence’s most flavourful, black, Perigord truffle, the Tuber melanosporum.

We had been walking for about five minutes when all of a sudden, Câline began to wag her tail frantically. Her excitement was palatable. Nose thrust to the ground, she raced ahead, scurrying back and forth. Then, with great gusto, she started to dig. Spati was right behind her. He used a handmade trowel shaped like a small ice pick to secure the truffle before Câline could damage, or, horrors, eat it. A truffle-scented biscuit from satchel was the pooch’s prompt payment for mission accomplished.

Although many breeds and either gender can aspire to the job, raw talent, followed be specific training, is the key. The best pups have a “good nose and a memory for old digs,” Spati told us. In days gone by, pigs, with their properly sensitive snouts performed the job. Nowadays they have fallen out of favour because, “it’s not easy to keep a 300-pound sow from eating the treasure.”

Truffles grow anywhere from four- to 20-cm underground, isolated, and without roots and most prevalently around oak trees. For centuries they have been prized as a culinary specialty.

To the ancient Romans, because of its vegetable origin, but lacking a seed, the truffle was an object of great curiosity and believed to be an aphrodisiac. During the Middle Ages, when truffles were considered a fruit of sin, they disappeared completely from dining tables.

While black truffles are prevalent in winter in Provence, the town of Alba, in Piemonte, is white truffle heaven. The season for these “white diamonds, (tuber magnatum Pico) begins in September and runs until Christmas.

That’s precisely why Fausto Di Berardino, owner of Coppi Ristorante on Yonge Street has made an October pilgrimage to Piemonte for the past 22 years.

“The minute you arrive in Alba,” Di Berardino says, his face lighting up at the mere thought of the experience, “you are assailed by the unmistakable aroma of truffles. People are giddy with the whole heady experience. It’s quite amazing.”

“Hunting for truffles easily becomes a passion. Enrico the truffler and I go out each morning at 4 am with two dogs. It’s dark and quiet, misty and mystical. The dogs work hard and by, 8 o’clock they’ve have had enough.”

Truffles have to be eaten fresh. Throughout the season di Berardino gets a shipment air freighted in each week, at a cost of $5,000 a kilo. “We went through more than six kilos last year,” he says.

Although they can lend their unusual, aromatic flavour to myriad foods, bland dishes such as pasta or risotto showcase the pungent aroma and delicate flavour best.

Favourite dishes at Coppi Ristorante include homemade taglierini topped with shaved white truffle. “Pasta, olive oil and white truffles. That’s it.”

“Everyone also goes crazy for risotto and white truffles,” ii Berardino adds. My mother always said, “That’s the way a truffle should die.”

His own personal favourite is Uovl al Tegamino – fried eggs, sunny side up. The eggs sit out overnight, in their shells, on top of a truffle, so they absorb the flavour. The next morning, they’re fried with a pinch of salt. Nothing else.

“It doesn’t get any better,” says the man with a big passion.

Urbane November 2006